On April 18th 2013, writer and photographer Rob Taylor had the pleasure of meeting Jan Siegel for this exclusive interview over tea and nibbles at London's famous Groucho Club.
RJT: What made you first decide to be a novelist over any other kind of writer?
JS: I didn’t decide, it really just evolved. I loved writing and making up stories and I’ve done it for literally as long as I can remember. I think I was making up stories before I could write; when I could first write, I started to write them down. I couldn’t spell - which I think made them more creative in a way - and I always wanted to write longer. I remember when I was about seven years old at school, we were given an essay subject and I started writing a story called The Secret River. And instead of handing it in when I was supposed to, I went on writing it. I wrote for, well, looking back it feels like weeks, but everything feels longer when you’re younger, so it was probably over a week or so before my teacher saw what I’d done. She took the essay and looked at it, but instead of telling me off for not having done as I was told, she was very pleased with me and read it aloud to the class.
So I just had a natural feel for writing longer stories. I do write short stories from time to time and I did write satisfactory short essays in my school career. But somehow I always tend to think that, with a novel, you’ve got more space. I’m working on a screenplay right now, and that gives you very limited space to develop character and plot - you need to condense everything all the time. I like writing long and having room to manoeuvre. But having said that, I do tend to be a relatively concise writer. I’ve got more concise, I think, as I’ve got older. I have a short attention span and a low boredom threshold, so I just get on with the story.
RJT: So would you say then that your ideas come fairly naturally? Where do you take your inspiration from?
JS: You’re never aware of that. Apart from looking at my overdraft which inspires me a lot! Inspiration and ideas come from everywhere and nowhere. I am a natural fiction writer, so I don’t draw - normally - on real life. I can do, but I’m very much into fiction at all times.
RJT: Do you find yourself having a flash of inspiration and thinking “this is a great idea! I must write a novel around it?” or does it come incrementally, bit by bit?
JS: You may have amazing flashes, but you also mix them with other things. You need a lot of ideas for a novel. Certainly two big ones: One comes along like a little sperm and fertilises the egg of the first idea! (Please don’t put this down verbatim because it will sound so iffy without my sarcastic inflection!)
RJT: Don’t worry. I’ll paraphrase.
JS: Good. Anyway, ideas come from all sorts of places but you need lots of them. The novel that I working on at the moment which is science fiction, is based on ideas which I probably started having when I was about fourteen. And I’ve done something with them before which wasn’t satisfactory, and so I’m coming back to them, redoing them in a different way, adding more and so on. When you’ve had an idea that long you feel really comfortable with it. You create an imaginary world, you are totally at home in that world. Which is great because you don’t have to think about it so much.
RJT: George Lucas said that films are never finished, only abandoned. Do you feel that way about novels?
JS: Hmm. It rather depends. Once I have written The End at the end of something, to a degree I’m through with it. I don’t want to come back and rewrite it as George Lucas comes back and digitally remasters his films. Partly because I’m too lazy! Some writers do. I may take ideas and reuse them, but I’ll use them in a different way. If it’s fiction and it’s published, I’ll probably leave it alone. But the characters are often ongoing. In my fantasy novels there are continuous characters, themes and scenarios which run through all the stories.
RJT: Your first novel, Pzyche, had an award created especially for it.
JS: That was really sweet. They [the Southeastern Arts Association] gave the main award to Raymond Briggs that year for When The Wind Blows, but they liked my book so much that they created a special Most Promising First Novel award for it. I won £100 and I went out and bought my first designer dress with it. Which I still have.
RJT: Money well spent. Does it still fit?
JS: Oh yes! Size wise I’m very similar to how I’ve always been. My tits are a bit bigger now.
RJT: Ahem. So would you say your career has gone according to plan?
JS: Well, I never made a plan. My plan was to be a published writer. I’ve published already some fifteen books, sixteen with the new one, and if you count a partial collaboration that would be seventeen... I think. I get a bit vague about it and I can’t be bothered to sit down and count. I hope to sell a million plus - I’m still aiming for that one. But I don’t believe in making career plans, or even life plans very often. I had some very hazy plans and they have come to fruition: I was going to live in London and have a fun life with lots of arty friends, things like that. Having a fun life with lots of friends is something I have achieved. I’ve had some very nice relationships in my life.
I feel... I don’t think I would change things. It’s stupid to speculate on what would have happened if you’d done something differently. I do feel that if you say your life has gone according to plan that you either made a very boring plan, or... you’re lying. Or something really bad is about to happen to you!
RJT: So you’d say it’s all gone according to plan in that there was no plan, but it’s all turned out rather nicely?
JS: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s turned out perfectly yet. I do worry a little bit if everything goes too brilliantly because I expect the sky to fall on my head. It’s been very up and down, but I wouldn’t change things.
In the way I’ve written, I’ve always wanted to write popular fiction. I haven’t yet written the great book that I’d like to write one day, but I want it to be a popular book. I’m not aiming to win literary awards specifically because if you start doing that nowadays, you are writing for the judges and you are not writing for everybody. I want to write so that people will finish my books and will feel a little bit of a feelgood thing, even if the ending is a little bit sad. I want them to feel like they’ve been on a journey with the characters and achieve something. So I don’t want to be terribly super-intellectual and clever about it. My mentor, when I was in my teens, was Edward Blishen, who was at the time a well-known editor and writer, with whom I corresponded regularly when I was very young. He gave me a lot of good advice. One of the things he said to me was, “Don’t study English literature at university. It’ll mess up your style.” And I would be almost inclined to say that, creative writing courses, if you’re good enough they ain’t necessary. You only need them if you’re not that good and you want to make the right contacts to win the awards. Because all the people who are on creative writing courses get the awards from the people who were their professors and so on. Dodgy but true.
RJT: How much of your own life experience do you put into your books?
JS: It depends. I may put little bits in, but not anything major as a rule. My first book was a science-fiction, but then I went on to write a string of sort of psychological dramas etcetera. There was something in my personal life that I was kind of writing out because I think I was subconsciously aware of the situation. Once I became consciously aware of it, it no longer needed to appear in any of my books. I don’t wish to say what it was, but it was something to do with people very close to me. In my early psychological dramas there are aspects that kind of tie-in with something in my personal life. Once I had realised what was happening, and had faced it and dealt with it, it wasn’t necessary to include it anymore. But I have never consciously written deeply personal stuff in as a rule, unless I turned it into something completely different. Because when you’re writing fantasy and science fiction, you tend to steer clear of personal life. You’re reaching into imaginary worlds, imaginary dimensions. So the personal stuff is very filtered.
I’m also not the sort of person who writes themselves into stories and gives themselves amazing adventures... So many writers do this! Particularly American writers but some Brit guys too. It’s men that do this, in general. They write themselves in as the tough, slightly seedy detective with the broken marriage... You just know the writer’s writing about himself! Particularly when he gets into bed with every woman along the line but also admits he’s not terribly attractive. So then it’s a fantasy as opposed to fiction.
Fantasy as we call it - fantasy realism, which is what I write - has got to be believable, all the way, no matter how much magic you put into it. And if it isn’t believable it isn’t going to work.
RJT: What’s the best thing that’s come completely out of the blue during your literary career?
JS: My early dust jackets for the Jan Siegel fantasies were done by the two Tolkien artists, Alan Lee and John Howe. I didn’t meet them but they read the books. And not many dust-jacket artists will actually read the books they’re working on. And I am, I think, the only fiction writer apart from Tolkien to have had both of them. I’m really into fantasy art and I went to John Howe’s website. I was looking through his artwork, suddenly found mine, and next to it there was a rave from him about my book, and what a terrific writer I was and how brilliant I was to illustrate.
This was a great boost as it came at a sort of low moment for me, so I got hold of John’s email address from HarperCollins and emailed him to say thank you. We continued to correspond and exchange emails, I met him while he was over here and he has been incredibly kind and supportive. He’s always said that, if he’s free, he’ll be glad to illustrate anything of mine, which is just wonderful. I also wrote the guest letter on his website once. That was a big ego boost.
RJT: Who are your influences, with regard to both writing style and content?
JS: Well there are influences in the sense of... Right, children’s fiction influenced me more than anything I think. The books you read as a child, they shape you to a degree. So in children’s fiction, Alan Garner, his early books. The Weirdstone of Brasingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, Elidor, The Owl Service. And John Masefield, the poet did two fantasies, The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights which I adore. And the way he used the transition from real to imaginary, so that you weren’t quite sure what was real and what was a dream, I try to do that in some of my fantasy realism. So you get the feeling that it could almost all be in someone’s head; you can’t be quite sure where reality and fantasy meet.
The Chronicles of Narnia, of course; The Hobbit; the Lord of the Rings I read aged eleven and it blew me away because it was my first experience of what I thought was a children’s book for grown-ups - or a grown-ups’ book for children - and I thought, this is the kind of book I want to write. Not in the sense of the swords and sorcery epic, but in the sense of the way it makes people feel. I wanted to take fantasy into a grown-up world and that was very unusual. It didn’t happen when I was first writing - as a child I mean, at school. It was an idea that I had and I didn’t know if I could do it. Then, in the eighties, people started doing it and that was when I got published.
There were very unlikely influences. The first Star Trek episode which I saw as a child on TV... My parents, by the way, never censored either my reading or my TV watching, so I read and watched a lot of stuff at a very early age that might possibly have been considered too grown-up for other children. Star Trek had a huge influence on me, just because it was a great story and a great adventures and the possibilities of other worlds in space and all that sort of thing.
As I got older... Oh, God, I admire so many different writers. I like the classics. Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Dickens... not quite as much as Trollope, though Dickens, when he was good, can be superb and he makes great film and TV. He goes on too much, sometimes, on the page. But he is good. Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone, I adore that.
I love crime fiction and hugely admire writers like Agatha Christie who you might consider underrated in the literary sense. She sketches in very lightly but she sketches in well. She actually really knows what she’s doing and a lot of more elaborate crime writers who have followed her should have learned more. Some did learn from her, some didn’t.
I love Terry Pratchett, Neal Gaiman... I also love Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Yaounde...Oh God,I’m going blank now. There are so many I’d need to sit down and draw up a seemingly endless list.
RJT: What are you reading right now?
JS: I’m not usually in the middle of reading things because I’m a binge reader. When I read a book, I finish it. I am a skim reader if the book isn’t very well written, I’ll race through it, beginning to end - even really long books - terribly fast. Also because I want to know who done it. That’s even if I’m reading history books, so in theory I do know who done it! I read history books, but I don’t read much historical fiction. It’s the one genre of fiction I don’t do much of. But I love reading real history, especially if it’s really well written. It’s more interesting than historical fiction. So I’ve been doing light reading only because I’ve got so much on at the moment, writing-wise, so I don’t want to distract myself.
I went into a second-hand bookshop the other day - my favourite one - and picked up a couple of Dick Francis and a Terry Pratchett. The Terry Pratchett I’ve read before, but I didn’t have a copy to hand. It was Small Gods, which I recommend as possibly the best book on religion I’ve ever read.
RJT: In the same way that you binge-read, do you binge-write?
JS: Sometimes, yes I do. I will sit sit down and slog and, for a few days, I will virtually sleep where I write. Or write where I sleep. Sleep two or three hours, wake up, write, write, write. Sleep, wake up and write. Forget to eat, then suddenly realise I’m starving, it’s three in the morning and find I’ve got nothing but two packets of biscuits or something incredibly unhealthy, so I’ll eat an entire packet of biscuits. Touch loads of wood, so far this hasn’t done me any harm. (Laughs.) But - and you may put this in the interview - my GP has just told me that apparently an erratic diet is apparently good for you. And if you have days when you don’t eat any calories to speak of, it’s okay or even good for you. Scientists don’t know why, but apparently it makes Alzheimer’s less likely. So all these hermits in the olden days, who used to fast for days on end, didn’t die of Alzheimer’s, and they did live a terribly long time, some of them. You never know, but I’ll get back to you when I’m 120.
RJT: If you’re bing-writing, how long does it typically take you to finish a project?
JS: It depends entirely on whether I’ve got a deadline. Deadlines are actually quite good for me; if I’ve got a deadline, I will usually - though not always - hit it. It depends what other things I’m doing. With this screenplay, for instance, because I have not done a screenplay before, I‘m tweaking it a lot, because I’m learning as I go - on the hoof, so to speak. I hope I’m getting it right! We’ll see.
But with a book I tend to know more or less what I’m doing these days, [Jan touches the wooden top of the Groucho bar] so I’m not likely to go back and make radical changes. Although sometimes you try to get clever and do things that you realise, later, that need to be taken out for simplicity’s sake. Or things you might want to be added in... My books, at the moment, tend to be classified as young adult / adult crossover, so you don’t want to get too elaborate. Having said that, I might cross over back into adult fiction. I don’t aim for a category. I just do what feels right and see where it fits. My new science fiction novel that I’m working on, which is Teknopunk - futuristic Steampunk - is taking modern technology and playing around with it, having fun with it, extrapolating it in a futuristic way. I find that I’ve done this in bits as it’s not a commissioned work, it’s a speculative work. So I have to keep stopping to do other things because I need to get paid from time to time...
RJT: Like every artist.
JS: Yes, exactly. So I’m not working myself to death on it, but I could, if necessary, write a 100,000 word book in six to eight months. That would probably be fairly standard, I would think, for a lot of writers.
RJT: So to the future, then. You’ve already touched on the screenplay you’re writing and the book you’re working on...
JS: The book that’s out in October  is part of a quartet - the Infernal Quartet - so if that goes according to plan, I shall be writing three more. I’ve got rough plots for them, I know where I’m going. Each book will be individual but there will be an ongoing storyline that builds to a climax. Also the science fiction I’m writing will be one of two; a duet. Actually I’m not sure if it’s “duet” or “duology”... Anyway, I’ve nearly finished the first one; twenty- to thirty-thousand words to go. There is a natural break at the end of the first book, but the story evolves through the second book. So that’s four books I’ve got to write after I’ve finished everything I’m doing right now!
The screenplay won’t take me much longer I think, unless I change my mind about something and try to re-treat the whole thing. If it works, I would like to have a shot at doing some more screenwriting. I’ve also got a children’s story that I’ve written which I would quite like to adapt for animation.
RJT: Jan Siegel, thank you very much.
JS: My pleasure.